Episode 38: Adolescent Sex Offenders and Sibling Abuse with Brad Watts
Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
Certified Sex Offender Treatment Provider (CSOTP)
Lori Poland is joined by Brad Watts, Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Sex Offender Treatment Provider, and author of “Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Confronting America’s Silent Epidemic”. Brad discusses his work treating adolescent sex offenders as well as the silent epidemic of sibling sexual abuse.
Brad Watts’ website: https://bradwattslpc.com/
Link to Brad Watts’ book: “Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Confronting America’s Silent Epidemic”
The Louder than Silence podcast is brought to you by The National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect (EndCAN).
Transcript of the Louder than Silence Podcast Episode #38: Working with Adolescent Sex Offenders with Brad Watts
Transcribed by Aiesha Hemeda
[Inspirational theme music plays]
>>Lori: Alright, hello everybody and welcome to The Louder Than Silence Podcast. This is Lori Poland, I am the Executive Director for the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect. This podcast is real people having real conversations about hard topics. Today we have Brad Watts joining us, which I am super excited about! It’s been many months of eagerness, specifically because of the work that Brad does and I can’t wait for him to tell you guys all about it. Just as a little bit of a disclaimer, what Brad does, and what we’re talking about today can be really hard for some of our listeners because it kinda pushes us beyond our comfort zone of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Though, that’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re having these conversations. So welcome Brad, It is such a delight to have you today.
>>Brad: Thanks Lori, it’s great to be here, and thanks for having me come on.
>>Lori: Yeah, for sure! Why don’t you tell us and our listeners who you are and what you do in the world.
>>Brad: I’m Brad Watts, I’m a therapist, I’m a licensed professional counselor, and a certified sex offender treatment provider. I work with youth and their families that have sexually abused or sexually offended in a variety of ways, and I’ve been doing that for the last several years.
>>Lori: Excellent. So first of all, can you tell our audience a little bit about what it takes to get certified to be a sex offender counselor?
>>Brad: Yeah, so it took me a couple of years. I went through a variety of classes and trainings in different topics related to sexual offending and sexual acting out. Within those two years, I submitted and got approved with the certification.
>>Lori: Wonderful. I know every state is a little bit different, so I’m just curious– in case anybody did want to potentially reach out or come and see you, what part of the world are you in?
>>Brad: Yeah, so I’m in virginia. Been here the last five years.
>>Lori: Alright, great. Brad, let’s dig in a little bit. Off air we were talking about how on air I planned to say this [laughs]. Ultimately, it can be hard for people to have a greater understanding of working with sex offenders, and what draws somebody to choose to work with that population. I’m really curious because everybody I’ve ever met that works with the S.O population, they have a story and they have their own reason, and I’d love to hear yours.
>>Brad: Absolutely. Well I fell in Lori with those people who felt like they could never work with sex offenders. I remember I sat in graduate school, I had an amazing teacher, and during some of those classes she talked about how much she loved working with that population. I was like that’s gotta be insane! How in the world could you do that? Then I would think, did anybody try to abuse her? I worried about her safety and those kinds of things. During my time studying under her, she talked about the reasons she enjoyed it so much. I remembered thinking at the time, that’s cool for you, but I could never do that. So I moved up to Virginia and was looking for jobs, obviously interviewing at different places. I came to the place where I’m at now, that I really liked. They said basically, what’s your feelings about working in our– what we call our T-safe operations, Treatment for sexually acting out youth. I remember thinking about her and thinking if she really liked it, I’m willing to give it a hundred percent and kind of put my preconceived notions to the side and give it a legitimate shot. Well here I am, five years later. This is what I specialize in, I’ve written a book on it. I’m just really enthralled in it, so that’s what propelled me in initially, then obviously I’ve had my experiences and it kept me wanting to learn more and wanting to help people .
>>Lori: Excellent, wow. I really want to highlight there’s even a subspecialty in there for you when you’re working with sex offenders, you work with adolescents and juveniles. Are they already identified as sex offenders or is there risky behavior? Can you help us identify and understand the difference?
>>Brad: Yeah, what tends to happen with adolescents, they’re typically not labeled sex offenders. They’re not put on registries by large, they can be, but in most cases they don’t because with adolescent courts it’s all about rehabilitation. With the adults, it’s all about containment and that’s a big reason, being able to see these youths change. They’re much more susceptible to treatment change than adults are, and that’s a big reason with that as well.
>>Lori: One thing that I’ve understood– and I’d love for your expertise on this Brad, some of the statistics around sex offending and what causes someone to be a sex offender, is it because they have their own experience? Then we’ll dive into more after that because I have more questions [laughs].
>>Brad: Well the kind of old view used to be that if you were sexually offended on, that makes you much more likely to go and do it yourself. What i’ve seen, and what others– those of us in this field, is that pornography plays a huge role as well. So these kids just get engulfed in porn at an early age and it can cause them– it doesn’t cause, they still choose, that’s their decision. Just because they’re looking at porn doesn’t mean they make a sexual offence, but it really can mess with their brains. They don’t have the life experiences older adults have, so it has a big play in that. Other things like other types of abuse or neglect, those things are factors too. What I see is that pornography and sexual media plays with these kids brain development and experiences by propelling them into sexual offending acts.
>>Lori: Sure, and some people would argue well that’s just an excuse or that’s justification and you can’t rehabilitate a sex offender. Tell me what your thoughts and theories are on that.
>>Brad: Well certainly like I said, people being abused, it’s your choice. They’re still making choices, that’s what we factored a lot on. This is your decision, no one made you do this, looking at porn didn’t make you do that, and these are decisions they’ve made. Now with that being said, this puts them in a higher risk category to be able to do that. When you look at the brain development side of things it’s huge. When you talk about an adult brain that is fully formed around the mid twenties, and these kids, their brains are not fully developed. They’re not looking at things as their full ramifications and consequences as say, Jerry Sandusky– who’s been doing it for years and years, has a set pattern. I believe that anybody can change, but it makes it a lot harder in those kinds of situations. So what we see with these kids is that there’s high rates, if they come into a specialized sex offender treatment program, they’re not going to re-offend. So when you talk about not coming into police custody or being arrested for sexual offending, the numbers are stimated somewhere between ninety-five and ninety-eight percent, and that if they complete a program prior to eighteen, the wont fall back into those previous abusive behaviors. Get them into treatment and the likelihood of them rehabilitating is really high, versus adults, where it’s really low.
>>Lori: It’s like old dog, new trick kind of philosophy. I’m fascinated by the statistic that you just shared. I feel like I could be here for hours, and I won’t be, but we will be having you back for sure, I can already tell. Is there any outcomes, measurements, or research that shows the correlation between children who have an excess amount of porn exposure and accessibility, versus children who have their own lived experience? Are the statistics different for rehab for them? And recidivism, is it lower when it’s an environmental exposure like porn, versus a lived experience like being victims of sexual offence?
>>Brad: So I’m not aware of any research comparing those two, but what we do know is that addiction to porn and heavy involvement in porn changes attitudes, particularly porn that dehumanizes people. Really what we see with the trends in porn is that the more aggressive the better, what they’re saying is the abusive acts in most cases. It does make people more likely to sexual offend when youre talking about adolecents, but you bring up a really great point. Some of that data might be out there, I just haven’t come across it, but to compare those two sets, really would be fascinating and I think Important.
>>Lori: Yeah, it would be really important. What you’re saying– what i’m hearing you say is that potentially sex offending is preventable.
>>Lori: I mean, my guess is– and again we don’t have enough research unfortunately. It’s just mind blowing that we’re in 2021, I even had to look at the date, I’m like what year is this? But it’s mind blowing to me [laughs] that we are at this stage in our world with this much accessibility to research, and numbers, and statistics. I know that when I buy a car, the ends and outs of every single detail, what that car could or couldn’t, how I might live, how I might not live. What are the chances of my kids survival rate if they got hit at this speed or this rate etc, but I don’t know a statistic like that. The impact of a car accident versus somebody being sexually abused is so– like I have goosebumps all over my body. I get as you could probably tell, super passionate, like come on people! Where are we! It’s good that we’re having these conversations because thirty years ago, there’s no way this conversation would have even taken place. So we’re making progress, not as fast as I want it to be but we are making progress, and by the time I retire, I know we’ll know that statistic. So, my next question is who do you find is the most likely potential victim of the youth that you work with? Is it intrafamilial? Is it access to neighborhood kids? I want to kind of go down that path of how we can help our children.
>>Brad: Great question, my work with this has kind of been looking at sibling sexual absue. That’s where we see it more than anywhere else, and I call it in the book, and other people have referred to it as well, it’s a silent epidemic. Like what you mentioned, we don’t talk about it! We’re having an important conversation right now and yeah it makes us uncomfortable, but we need to make these uncomfortable conversations so that people can see how frequent it is. This is one of those few taboo subjects in our society. We’re open to talking about almost anything, but we’re not open to talking about this.
>>Lori: And something that’s so preventable. For you to say that treatment- in what sounds like a high intensity treatment, the statistics are saying there are ninety-five to ninety-eight of success rates of not re-offending. That is basically telling me that sexual abuse is preventable. The other statistic we don’t know is how many adult offenders have been juvenile offenders, and because nobody talked about it, because we weren’t having these open conversations, because we weren’t noticing or wanting to look, wanting to ask. Because we have so much shame about being a victim of sexual abuse, essentially creating something that doesn’t need to exist. It just doesn’t need to exist, if we started having hard conversations earlier on. Unbelievable. I was going to go somewhere and I lost it, so I’m going to go here instead. What can families do? How can parents be supportive– and maybe it’s not parent’s, maybe it’s friends and families. What can adults do to help prevent this?
>>Brad: Well one, what we can do is we can start talking about it. We can try to normalize it as much as we can, the frequency that it happens. What happens frequently is that parents may find out, and there’s this sense of disbelief. So if someone offends Johnny out of the neighborhood, some guy molests him, we’re naturally going to respond with that. When it happens in the family among siblings, there’s a much higher level of doubt and disbelief from the parents because there’s not an understanding. People are confused, where is the line? What is natural sexual curiousity and sexual exploration and what is abuse? So there’s confusion with that. I had one person ask me one time– someone that knows, someone that’s in the field– not in my specific field, but in the mental health field, is that really abuse between siblings? I’m like yes! Yes! It lasts longer, it’s more traumatic. It’s important for parents to know the signs, to look for signs, to establish the kind of relationship with their kids where they can tell them anything. To know that I can go to mom, I can go to dad with whatever it is, and to really just pick up similar signs that we see from trauma that the kids have. Whether that’s nightmares, or anger, or changes in personality, there’s a long list of things but when you see those changes, intervene, and don’t be afraid to get professionals involved.
>>Lori: Right. So tell me are we looking for those signs in the child that is exhibiting the risky behavior and the sexual offender? Or are we looking for signs in the child that’s being perpetrated upon?
>>Brad: Well I think with both. Specifically with the survivor, with the one that’s being offended on, you can a lot of times see a change in behavior. But you also see that with the offender, parents are able to alot of the times pick that up when they’re acting strange or this is going on. A lot of the time it’s a feeling in the gut, and I tell parents or whoever I speak to, follow that gut. There’s nothing wrong with exploring and asking questions or getting involved with people, whether that’s a therapist or somebody to consult with. Simply sexual abuse in this epidemic just really preys on silence.
>>Lori: Well and my guess is, I’ve worked with a number of families that have had adult children who come out saying our other sibling offended us, and the disruption in the family is just insurmountable. Ultimately what happens is there’s been a lifetime of betrayal from the child onto the parent, that you didn’t protect me, you didn’t do what you should’ve done. Oftentimes parent’s genuinely don’t know and they didn’t follow that instinct. They knew something was off and they saw some red flags, but they didn’t follow that instinct. Then the other layer is that initial response, and I think that it’s both when it’s intrafamilial and stranger, and or extrafamilial– specifically for sexual offending, whoever the person is that the victim is disclosing to, there response is pivitol. If we shame, deny, question, ask for proof, all of it, silence it or any of those things, It can have a ripple effect on that person or on that victim and then it can last forever. I’ve just seen that in some of the adult families I’ve worked with where mom and dad’s response is intending to be protective and intending to be helpful, it just was catastrophic. So are there any suggestions for the hear-er on how to respond when they are being disclosed to? What would be that?
>>Brad: Yeah, absolutely believe them. Offer support, offer unconditional love because we can’t imagine what it’s like for them to muster up the courage to come and tell, because who knows what their sibling has been saying. A lot of times there’s threats, you’re going to break up the family, all of this is put on them. Think about as a seven, six– however old they are, little boy or little girl, what they’re thinking about in that regard. For them to come forward and tell is huge. To sit there and say we don’t believe you or what were you wearing? Why were you downstairs with them alone? The worst things we could do.
>>Lori: So I want to rewind just a little bit because a couple of minutes ago you were talking about how it’s often the victim that’s the discloser, and we’re looking for signs in the victim. Just being the ridiculous optimist, is there– and I say that with love for myself because I love that I’m an optimist[laughs], are there signs that we can see that truly– is there any research or any answers from juveniles that you have worked with that have said this is what i was doing, or this is sign number one, this was a year before I began re-offending. Is there anything like that can help us as adults keep our children safer and Ideally, truly prevent?
>>Brad: Yeah, as far as just things to watch, there’s patterns that offenders go through. A lot of manipulation, a lot of what we call grooming, whether it’s bribery through candy or other kinds of pressures. A lot of it starts from showing porn, just kind of picking up on those signs. Typically offenders kind of go through the same pattern, a lot of it doesn’t vary a ton but manipulation is a big part of that. Just kind of taking advantage of those kinds of things and watching out for some of those kinds of behaviors.
>>Lori: Right, and so Brad you’ve written a book, tell us about that.
>>Brad: Right so it’s called Sibling Sexual Abuse, A Guide to Confronting America’s Silent Epidemic. What I’ve really learned in my time is that this isn’t just America’s silent epidemic, but it’s the world’s, this cuts across all kinds of countries. The whole design with it was, in my treatment, just kind of thinking, parent’s don’t have anything out there, no resource for this. So I wrote this book being intended for parents really, but I’ve really got a lot from survivors and others feeling validated from their experiences. It’s really for everybody, for anybody that’s just wanting to get involved to learn more about it. So there’s chapters that kind of going through the process and a lot of things involved. I just want people to know there’s a lot of hope, even if the abuse had happened, kids can and do rehabilitate. Families can come back together, it is a long and hard road, but it can be a road full of peace and redemption in a lot of ways. These roads can heal, the worst thing we can do is perpetuate and go on and it’s not addressed for years and years. The sooner it can be addressed the better, and just the more we all can get involved in our communities, in our families or individuals talking about it, posting about it, and really supporting these courageous survivors. It’s gone on for years and years in a lot of their cases and it just adds to the complexity of their trauma, but the more we can talk about it, the more they are going to feel comfortable to be able to share their stories. Those are the people that we learn the most from.
>>Lori: I’m curious, what has been the most surprising thing for you in doing this work?
>>Brad: The frequency, and if not just clients– within my circle of influence, I’ve done presentations on different things in communities around here, and just people coming up to me afterwards and sharing their stories. I’ve never thought that it was as prevalent as it was, it’s been mind blowing. We don’t have any accurate numbers because people don’t talk about it, but just the frequency far and away it’s the number one thing.
>>Lori: So I was going to save this for another conversation, but I do want to ask this question. I’m curious what your thoughts are on our child welfare system and its protective capacity and or involvement in these kinds of cases. In my experiences, oftentimes when it’s a sibling sexual abuse there is very little, if no involvement from child welfare. Typically because there’s this age barrier and every state is different and some states have a classification that there needs to be a five year age difference for it to be considered sexual offending. Therefore we’re not even going to provide treatment or pay for treatment, and when and if that happens because that makes sense[laughs]. Tell me your thoughts and theories on that and if child welfare is involved, do you feel it’s helpful? Do you feel like families just need to do this whether they have that engagement or not?
>>Brad: Well hopefully they do have that engagement and that support. One of the big things in a lot of the cases, the court systems are involved and that can make things easier. Instead of mom and dad having to send Johnny away, a judge is saying you have to complete this and I’m following up at these steps along the way. We have to talk more about it because the worst thing we can do is keep them together because there isn’t five years or whatever the determination, or like you’ve pointed out, different rules in different states. This is serious and treatment needs to be started ASAP, so a lot of the time that means separating them for a time, letting the offender get into treatment. We also need the survivor getting into treatment and the family needs their own treatment for this, this is a critical piece, and then we can bring people back together when everyone is ready for that. That’s going to produce better much outcomes than just sticking them into the home and having the survivor having constant retraumatization when they sit at the dinner table or when they’re watching tv and guess what, and Johnny never even got grounded for sexual abuse.
>>Lori: Right, wow. My brain is going down like seven different rabbit holes and I think we’re going to reel it in a little bit because there’s so much more that we can uncover. So if we can, to close it out today, what would be the biggest takeaway for our listeners, if you wanted them to hear one thing from this podcast what would it be?
>>Brad: You play a very important role, much more important than you think. It works to help us create the kind of culture where survivors and families can come forward. My dream would be mom or dad being able to post on Facebook to their friends where would I go if I found out this? We would never do that! To have that kind of safety for survivors to be heard and we just create a culture where we eradicate the silence behind this.
>>Lori: Well I mean that’s kind of how it continues to exist right? Because nobody talks about it so it does make it more accessible and allows for the secrecy to live on because we simply don’t talk about it. With all abuse that’s ultimately what offenders count on right? Is the ability and willingness of our culture to deny and hide. Well Brad, thank you so much for being our guest today on The Louder Than Silence podcast. Tell our listeners one more time where they can find you.
>>Brad: Yeah, check me out on twitter at Brad Watts LPC. Also my website is Brad Watts LPC.com, and you can also find me on facebook.
>>Lori: Great, and the name of your book one more time.
>>Brad: It’s Sibling Sexual Abuse.
>>Brad: Thanks Lori.
>>Lori: Thank you Brad and thanks everybody for listening today, this is Lori Poland with the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect, you’re listening to the Louder Than Silence podcast. Have a wonderful day, we’ll talk to you soon.
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